I’ve always been the take charge kind of person. At a group dinner, I often am happy to take the wine list to choose a bottle for the table. In graduate school, I took the lead on group projects. When I went away for the weekend with friends, I’d volunteer to drive. When I worked as a teacher, I sent emails and made the photocopies for the grade team. I am the one who steps up to make decisions and take control.
So over time, I got pegged as bossy, demanding, and a control freak. As a child...and teenager...and adult sometimes, I was called bratty (though there were plenty of times I indeed acted like a brat)!
For 31 years, I stepped into this role as a planner and a controller – and it became who I was or rather who I thought I was. Then I became a mother and I tried with all my might to control every aspect of situation. SPOILER ALERT: you cannot control a baby. Cue the panic attacks.
I was a first-time mom that could not function due to uncontrollable anxiety. Since then I have started down the path of truly healing these controlling behaviors that were not serving me. Now I work on managing my mental health, particularly my anxiety, in an adaptive and sustainable way. What I discovered is all of that “take charge” behavior was my way of coping with anxiety. I learned from an early age that if I spoke up and took the wheel to control the next turn, then I could temporarily mitigate the anxiety. And for more than three decades, it worked pretty well.
Since becoming a mother, I have learned and begun practicing very effective coping techniques for anxiety. I'm still working on mastering them but as my therapist tells me, it is a practice. And that means, I have to practice these techniques for them to become habit. For so long, trying to control situations has been my knee jerk reaction and it takes some time to break a bad habit.
5-4-3-2-1 Ground Technique
Often the anxiety I feel is about what may or may not happen in the future. My biggest struggle with motherhood and in life, is staying in the here and now. This technique forces you into the moment! You use your 5 senses to come back to the present moment.
5 – SEE – name five things you see
4 – FEEL – identify four things you can touch around you
3 – HEAR – acknowledge three things you can hear
2 – SMELL – find two things you can smell
1 – TASTE – identify one thing you can taste
I find taste and smell can be hard. For smell, you may not immediately notice a smell so seek one out. If you’re in the car, smell the leather on the seat or if you are outside smell a flower. Then for taste, think about what does the inside of your mouth taste like, gum, coffee, or the salad you had for lunch? There is no wrong way to do this and I think you will find it forces you back into the moment very quickly.
This is a concept from Zen Buddhism. It is a skill really, you have to work at it and the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.
Panic attacks and anxiety tend to fall under the spell of, “what you resist, persists.” This idea tells us that when we struggle with something and we push it away, it actually becomes worse. Radical Acceptance teaches us to let go of fighting with our pain. It teaches those with panic attacks to work with and accept the anxiety, rather than to fight it. Ironically, acceptance often leads to decreased anxiety. It sounds counterintuitive but if you give it a try, I am certain you will feel the benefits. I have found that this technique has a way of taking power away from the anxiety I am experiencing.
For example, I often feel anxious about my children getting sick. This anxiety is related to minor sicknesses that resolve themselves such as a virus or a bad cold. When using this skill of Radical Acceptance, I might say to myself, “kids get sick, my kids are not sick now, they will get sick at some point in the future. When they are sick, I will deal with it, just as I have in the past. They will get sick and they will get better. Kids get sick sometimes.”
It seems very basic but when the voice of anxiety is ringing in your ears, this accepting voice of reason is often hard to hear. With Radical Acceptance, we can turn up the volume on the rational mind.
Cold Water Immersion
This is just what it sounds like. When you feel anxious, immerse your body in cold water. When anxiety strikes, it is typically not possible to fully submerge your body so do the next best thing. I splash the coldest water possible on my face and run my wrists under the coldest water. It creates a very similar effect.
I am willing to try just about anything for reducing anxiety but when my therapist recommended this it was met with a heavy dose of skepticism. I thought, “really? Cold water on my face is going to make my anxiety go away?” But I figured, “what’s the harm in trying?”
I am here to tell you, it works. Truly, it does. I have come to learn there is actual science to back it up! A shock of cold water increases the release of norepinephrine (the hormone that calms you down) to the bloodstream which has a positive influence on mood, attention and focus.
If you are feeling anxiety and panic set in, go immediately to the nearest faucet and splash your face with cold water. If you have the opportunity, hop in the shower and totally immerse yourself in cold water. Most importantly, don’t knock it till you try it.
Have you tried any of these techniques? Do you have any particular coping techniques that work well for you? Please share!
photo courtesy of Shira Zimmerman